While we are all living longer, collective health seems to be getting worse.
Only one in eight Americans has optimal metabolic health1. That equates to just 12% of the population.
The remaining 88% are at an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
What does metabolic health mean?
In the 2019 study mentioned above, the researchers defined metabolic health as having optimal levels of;
- waist circumference
- fasting and long-term blood glucose
- blood pressure
- body fats (triglycerides)
In addition, to have optimal metabolic health, participants also had to be not taking any related medication for diseases such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
The five conditions above are used to define metabolic syndrome. Even if you have just one of these issues, you could not have metabolic syndrome. However, it does indicate a higher risk of developing a serious illness. In addition, as these conditions progress, so does your risk of consequences including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
COVID-19, comorbidities and coronavirus
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on our metabolic health and our body’s ability to fight diseases. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc around the world, with “comorbidities” becoming a buzzword. No one can claim to be unaware of the effects of poor metabolic health on our immune system and the body’s ability to keep the potentially deadly virus at bay.
Worldwide, health institutions have chosen to focus on developing vaccines and medication to manage the effects of the virus, rather than encouraging people to change some of their unhealthy lifestyle habits and achieve optimal health.
Addressing obesity, high blood pressure, raised triglyceride levels, high blood sugar, and lower levels of HDL-cholesterol would have more long-term health benefits than any vaccination or drug2.
The has been and still is an opportunity to promote both pharmaceutical interventions (if safe and effective) and building individual and collective health.
Prevention is always better than cure
When it comes to the coronavirus, good metabolic health will not stop you from contracting the virus, but it will make it possible for your immune system to launch an appropriate attack.
When your body is already in an inflamed state due to comorbidities such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, an exaggerated immune response may be less than you need.
Our five pillars of health make it easier to identify the areas in your life that could help to build health and resilience (i.e. the immune system).
When you focus on nourishing your body, breathing correctly, getting enough good quality sleep, moving your body and managing your stress more effectively, you become stronger and more resilient.
These are our seven easy steps for strengthening your immune system and improving your metabolic health.
1. Nourish Your Body
Nutrition is the cornerstone of good health. Your body depends on you to eat foods that provide sufficient energy, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. When everything is present in the optimal amount, all of your hundreds of metabolic processes work in tandem to maintain peak physical and mental health.
The best foods to boost immunity and improve your metabolic health are whole, natural foods that have not been subjected to the processing practices of food manufacturers; or foods that have only been minimally processed. They tend to be nutrient-rich foods and contain vital immune-boosting nutrients: vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc, iron, folic acid, vitamin D and vitamin E3.
The top foods to include in your diet to build immunity are:
- Black and brown rice
- Probiotic-rich foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut
Not all food is created equal, especially in the modern food environment. Ultra processed foods may taste great, but they often don’t resemble what nature intended for us to eat. They are full of unhealthy fats, sugar and chemicals our bodies were not designed to metabolise.
The result is chronic inflammation which predisposes us to chronic diseases of lifestyle and an altered immune system4.
Below is a list of some of the more commonly eaten ultra-processed foods you should try to avoid:
- Fast food
- Soft drinks
- Flavoured milk
- Instant noodles
- Processed and sweetened breakfast cereals
- Mass-produced bread
Highly processed foods are ubiquitous in our world. Read our guide on how to identify ultra processed foods to ensure you’re equipped to avoid them.
2. Breathing Techniques To Control Stress
The average adult breathes twelve to twenty times per minute, every minute of the day5. We do it automatically and only give it any thought when it starts to feel uncomfortable.
Breathing through the nose has numerous benefits for our health. When we focus on breathing well, it becomes possible to control the body’s response to stress.
Diaphragmatic breathing (also referred to as deep breathing) has been shown to be beneficial for managing stress and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. It involves slowing down your breathing by contracting the diaphragm, expanding the belly, and deepening your inhalation and exhalation.
In a study published in Frontiers In Psychology, the effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative mood and stress was examined6. Forty participants were split into two groups: a control group and a breathing intervention group. The intervention group received intensive breathing training over a period of eight weeks. At the end of the study, the researchers observed a decrease in cortisol levels, a hormone released in response to a stressful situation.
When you breathe deeply, using your diaphragm, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Even a single breathing practice can reduce your blood pressure, increase the oxygenation of your blood, and enhance the function of your lungs. It can also alter emotional regulation and psychological adaptation.
These are just some of the many reasons why nose breathing is better than mouth breathing.
3. Improve Sleep Quality
When last did you feel refreshed when you woke up in the morning? Do you toss and turn all night and struggle to get out of bed in time to have a gentle, relaxed start to your day?
Poor sleep quality is a problem for a third of Americans, with between 10% to 30% battling chronic insomnia7.
A single night of disrupted sleep can result in you feeling more stressed, exaggerated mood disorders, and problems with cognition, memory and performance deficits.
If insomnia is a chronic problem you are at an increased risk for developing hypertension, high cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
Some studies have shown an increase in the incidence of certain cancers and death, and the worsening of the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders, when people habitually don’t get enough sleep8.
If you think your lack of quality sleep is negatively affecting your metabolic health, try implementing some of these strategies to get a better night’s sleep:
- Give yourself enough time to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
- Limit your caffeine intake.
- Avoid drinking alcohol before going to bed.
- Monitor your screen habits and switch off your devices at least an hour before going to bed.
- Instead of watching TV or browsing social media before going to bed, read a book.
- Exercise daily.
- Stick to the same routine everyday – go to bed and wake up at the same time.
- Make sure your sleeping environment is quiet, cool and dark
- Address underlying medical conditions such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome that may be contributing to your sleepless nights.
- Implement these simple steps for improving sleep habits and tips for a consistently good night’s sleep.
4. Move Your body
“The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defence system” is the title of a review article published in May 2019. The researchers stated although the link between exercise and immune health is a new area of scientific investigation, it has been known for more than a hundred years that exercise has a far greater effect on the body than increasing your breathing rate9.
There are four areas of research in exercise immunology:
- Acute/chronic changes: Moderate exercise enhances immunosurveillance (the process of identifying pathogens).
- Clinical influences: Exercise reduces chronic inflammation and the risk of developing chronic diseases.
- Nutritional interactions: carbohydrate reduces the effect of inflammation after exercise.
- Immunosenescence: Exercise diminishes the effects of ageing on the immune system.
When you enjoy regular moderate physical activity your immune system works better. It is more likely to recognise a potential threat sooner, reduce the effects of chronic inflammation and continue to function well, even in old age.
It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you choose to do; just move your body daily. Gardening, walking, swimming, a gym workout, yoga, pilates, and tai chi, all offer health benefits.
Choose the activity that appeals to you most. Exercise with a friend. The more enjoyable it is, the more likely you will stick with it and make it a daily habit.
5. Drink Enough Water To Stay Hydrated
Hydration is essential for metabolic health and immunity. We can live for weeks without food, but only days without water. Every process in your body relies on it.
The nutrients needed to carry out chemical pathways are transported to where they are needed on your blood, which is made mostly of water. Metabolic waste products are excreted through urine, faeces and sweat, all of which contain significant amounts of water.
A research study tested the hypothesis that sub-optimal hydration before infection with the Sars-CoV-2 virus increases the risk of dying from Covid-19 disease. The results suggest mild dehydration may increase the likelihood of a coronavirus infection, set the stage for an exaggerated immune response, increase tissue damage and leakage of fluid into the airways, and reduce the capacity for removing fluid from the airways10.
To give your immune system a boost, try some of these ideas for making sure you drink enough water every day:
- Start your day with a glass of water.
- Keep a glass next to the sink in the kitchen or the basin in your bathroom to remind you to drink water whenever you enter the room.
- Buy yourself a stainless steel or glass water bottle and keep it with you to make it convenient to drink water.
- Keep a jug of water on your desk.
6. Nurture Your Gut Health
The importance of a healthy gut microbiome cannot be overstated. When your gut is healthy, you are healthy. 70% to 80% of the immune system is in the gut11. So, it makes sense that when you look after your digestive system and the trillions of microorganisms that live in the intestines, your health will improve.
Using antibiotics unnecessarily, a sugar-rich, fibre-poor diet and stress can alter the type and number of gut bacteria. When the balance between beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria is interrupted we become more susceptible to pathogenic bacteria and viruses and atypical immune responses.
There is also an increased risk of developing inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, metabolic syndrome and neurodegenerative disorders12.
A healthy diet focusing on nutrient-dense foods such as good quality meat, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables, healthy fats from oils, avocados, nuts and seeds, and fermented foods including yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh and kombucha, will provide fuel and nutrients that support the friendly gut bacteria and help them flourish.
7. Minimise Environmental Stress
We live in a world full of modern conveniences. In our attempt to make life easier for ourselves we have created an environment that exposes us to thousands of chemicals, electromagnetic frequency and environmental toxins like mould every day.
This exposure impacts all parts of our body, including the gut microbiome and the immune system.
Limiting our exposure to these elements has become increasingly important.
Here are some tips for reducing your exposure to environmental toxins:
- Allow air to flow through your home by opening the windows.
- Use a HEPA filter-fitted vacuum cleaner to vacuum your mattress.
- Reduce the number of chemicals you use to clean your home.
- Don’t have water lying around the house; it promotes the growth of mould.
- Air your mattress and your pillows in the sun.
- Store food and beverages in glass.
- Invest in a water filter.
- Physically remove visible mould.
- Reduce your exposure to electromagnetic frequencies from your router and cell phone.
Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Build Immunity And Improve Your Metabolic Health
A healthy diet and exercise, combined with deep breathing, good quality sleep, optimum hydration, gut health and reducing your exposure to environmental toxins have a profound effect on your health. By making some simple changes to your diet and lifestyle you can improve your metabolic health and build your immune system.
As frightening as it has been, the Covid-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to take stock of our health and make some much-needed changes to our lifestyle. When we live with poor metabolic health, as 88% of Americans do, we increase our risk of dying from diseases such as Covid-19.
Take charge of your health so you don’t need to rely on the pharmaceutical industry through drug interventions that primarily treat the symptoms, not the causes.
Sleep, breathe, nourish, movement and thought are the five pillars of health and provide a blueprint for you to make simple lifestyle changes to improve health.
The Unstress approach will help you overcome problems in these areas so you can improve metabolic health and live a life free from the burden of disease.
- Araújo J, Cai J, Stevens J. Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders [Internet]. 2019 Feb [cited 2022 Jul 20];(1):46–52. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/met.2018.0105
- Fernández-Verdejo R, Moya-Osorio JL, Fuentes-López E, Galgani JE. Metabolic health and its association with lifestyle habits according to nutritional status in Chile: A cross-sectional study from the National Health Survey 2016-2017. Tauler P, editor. PLOS ONE [Internet]. 2020 Jul 22 [cited 2022 Jul 20];(7):e0236451. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0236451
- Vishwakarma S, Panigrahi C, Barua S, Sahoo M, Mandliya S. Food nutrients as inherent sources of immunomodulation during COVID-19 pandemic. LWT [Internet]. 2022 Mar [cited 2022 Jul 20];113154. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2022.113154
- Martínez Leo EE, Peñafiel AM, Hernández Escalante VM, Cabrera Araujo ZM. Ultra-processed diet, systemic oxidative stress, and breach of immunologic tolerance. Nutrition [Internet]. 2021 Nov [cited 2022 Jul 20];111419. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2021.111419
- Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O’Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe [Internet]. 2017 Nov 30 [cited 2022 Jul 20];(4):298–309. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1183/20734735.009817
- Ma X, Yue Z-Q, Gong Z-Q, Zhang H, Duan N-Y, Shi Y-T, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology [Internet]. 2017 Jun 6 [cited 2022 Jul 20]; Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
- Sleep Statistics – Facts and Data About Sleep 2022 | Sleep Foundation [Internet]. Sleep Foundation. 2021 [cited 2022 Jul 20]. Available from: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/sleep-facts-statistics
- Medic G, Wille M, Hemels M. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep [Internet]. 2017 May [cited 2022 Jul 20];151–61. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S134864
- Nieman DC, Wentz LM. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science [Internet]. 2019 May [cited 2022 Jul 20];(3):201–17. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009
- Stookey JD, Allu PKR, Chabas D, Pearce D, Lang F. Hypotheses about sub-optimal hydration in the weeks before coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as a risk factor for dying from COVID-19. Medical Hypotheses [Internet]. 2020 Nov [cited 2022 Jul 20];110237. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2020.110237
- Wiertsema SP, van Bergenhenegouwen J, Garssen J, Knippels LMJ. The Interplay between the Gut Microbiome and the Immune System in the Context of Infectious Diseases throughout Life and the Role of Nutrition in Optimizing Treatment Strategies. Nutrients [Internet]. 2021 Mar 9 [cited 2022 Jul 20];(3):886. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/nu13030886
- Zheng D, Liwinski T, Elinav E. Interaction between microbiota and immunity in health and disease. Cell Research [Internet]. 2020 May 20 [cited 2022 Jul 20];(6):492–506. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41422-020-0332-7